>Jesus went to a seminar (and cast his vote?)


When we had better cable TV I used to love watching those Biblical histories, those “other” gospels stories, and the various histories of Christianity shows on the History & Discovery channels. A frequent guest interviewee on almost all these programs is John Dominic Crossan, one of the founders of The Jesus Seminar, and an interesting cat. I don’t know much about The Jesus Seminar, and I have nothing new to say about it, but the more I look at it the more fascinated I become. However, the more I look at it the more I also think it represents an entirely wrong way of reading the Bible, or really any work of literature, fiction or non-fiction. This is not to dispute the level of intense scholarship that some of its members achieve, nor the brilliance of individuals such as Crossan. Nor do I wish to dismiss the fundamental questions that it tries to answer.

John Dominic Crossan

One thing I find interesting and troubling is that the members of the Jesus Seminar vote on the authenticity of various saying and passages from the Bible. Voting isn’t a bad thing, and it can be a very good way of seeing which way the wind is blowing, as it were. But voting is neither proof nor argument, and thus it can muddy waters already in need of clarity. Voting is also a good way to have one’s say while hiding within a group. Of course Crossan does not hide his thoughts. And to that point I have to say that upon hearing Crossan talk about Jesus I don’t think he fully gets him. Crossan likes to point out that Jesus came to show us a different way to peace, the way of non-violence. Certainly Jesus taught non-violence, but that was a secondary purpose. He was an example for certain, but he was first a priest, and a sacrifice, and an advocate, and a king. He fulfilled a functional role in the story of this world, a role all about our relationship to God first, and then our relationship to each other.

I am not a defender of traditional orthodoxy per se. This is not say that I don’t believe in truth or in the veracity of the Bible, but I do know that there are a lot of “untouchable” doctrines that should be re-examined, even if only to more fully establish their validity. Christianity is a history of doctrines, among other things, and history has a way of entrenching ideas such that they have the appearance of immovability. There is a tendency among all of us to see what we want to see, which includes what we expect to see. With that in mind I welcome challenges to orthodoxy as catalysts toward truth. But it seems to me that voting on the authenticity of Bible passages is a sure way to see what one wants to see and expects to see. It’s a good way to see what it is a group of people generally want to believe. It is not necessarily the truth, or any closer to the truth. And it is not an argument for the truth.

Here are some examples of how the votes have played out regarding some of the most famous sayings of Jesus:

Authentic sayings, as determined by the seminar:

1. Turn the other cheek (92%): Mt 5:39, Lk6:29a

2. Coat & shirt: Mt5:40 (92%), Lk6:29b (90%)

3. Congratulations, poor!: Lk6:20b (91%), Th54 (90%), Mt5:3 (63%)

4. Second mile (90%): Mt5:41

5. Love your enemies: Lk6:27b (84%), Mt5:44b (77%), Lk6:32,35a (56%)

6. Leaven: Lk13:20–21 (83%), Mt13:33 (83%), Th96:1–2 (65%)

7. Emperor & God (82%): Th100:2b–3, Mk12:17b, Lk20:25b, Mt22:21c

8. Give to beggars (81%): Lk6:30a, Mt5:42a

9. Good Samaritan (81%): Lk10:30–35

10. Congrats, hungry!: Lk6:21a (79%), Mt5:6 (59%), Th69:2 (53%)

11. Congrats, sad!: Lk6:21b (79%), Mt5:4 (73%)

12. Shrewd manager (77%): Lk16:1–8a

13. Vineyard laborers (77%): Mt20:1–15

14. Abba, Father (77%): Mt6:9b, Lk11:2c

15. The Mustard Seed: Th20:2–4 (76%), Mk4:30–32 (74%), Lk13:18–19 (69%), Mt13:31–32 (67%)

Some probably authentic sayings, as determined by the seminar:

16. On anxieties, don’t fret (75%): Th36, Lk12:22–23, Mt6:25

17. Lost Coin (75%): Lk15:8–9

18. Foxes have dens: Lk9:58 (74%), Mt8:20 (74%), Th86 (67%)

19. No respect at home: Th31:1 (74%), Lk4:24(71%), Jn4:44 (67%), Mt13:57 (60%), Mk6:4 (58%)

20. Friend at midnight (72%): Lk11:5–8

21. Two masters: Lk16:13a, Mt6:24a (72%); Th47:2 (65%)

22. Treasure: Mt13:44 (71%), Th109 (54%)

23. Lost sheep: Lk15:4–6 (70%), Mt18:12–13 (67%), Th107 (48%)

24. What goes in: Mk7:14–15 (70%), Th14:5 (67%), Mt15:10-11 (63%)

25. Corrupt judge (70%): Lk18:2–5

26. Prodigal son (70%): Lk15:11–32

27. Leave the dead (see also But to bring a sword, Nazirite): Mt8:22 (70%), Lk9:59–60 (69%)

28. Castration for Heaven (see also Origen, Antithesis of the Law) (70%): Mt19:12a

29. By their fruit (69%) (see Antinomianism): Mt7:16b, Th45:1a, Lk6:44b (56%)

30. The dinner party, The wedding celebration: Th64:1–11 (69%), Lk14:16-23 (56%), Mt22:2-13 (26%)

This strikes me as odd. Is it scholarship? What do you think?

One thought on “>Jesus went to a seminar (and cast his vote?)

  1. >My short answer to the first question is “no.” It’s interesting, and perhaps useful, to see a consensus develop among scholars, but I don’t see the critical thinking or arguments (which are parts of my idea of scholarship) expressed in a popular vote. I imagine many of the participants have written work that defines and defends their position.Historically speaking, much of what’s become orthodoxy in beliefs about Jesus (e.g. Nicene creed) has come about by a very similar process.I think there’s a general tendency amongst people to say, “greater minds than me…” or somesuch and wave off the responsibility to think for ourselves, and accept statements from scholars–whatever their discipline–as a model for thinking/living. Whether or not it’s absolutely true seems like it’s less important than whether or not it works.

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